Give Your Readers a Ride They’ll Never Forget

Today’s guest post is by suspense author Erika Mitchell:

When I was ten, a family friend took me to Disneyland. As we stood in line for Space Mountain, he leaned over to me and said, “You’ve gotta be careful on this ride. The ceilings are so low, they’ll take your head clean off if you sit up too straight.”

As soon as my butt hit the hard metal seat, I felt myself break out into a nervous sweat. The darkness up ahead was a patch of night sky without any stars in it, and as the ride jerked into motion I scooted down as low into my seat as I could and held on tight to the metal lap bar.

In pure darkness, I felt the car going up, slowly, interminably, just long enough to make me regret ever having gotten on the stupid ride in the first place. When we reached the top, I felt us teeter on the edge just long enough to grab half a gasp and then we were plunging down into Stygian black at what felt like a thousand miles an hour. Before I had a chance to recover from the plunge, the car was bucking left and right in a series of tight turns I couldn’t see coming, the thrill magnified and intensified by the very fact that I couldn’t anticipate anything up ahead. By the time I got off the ride, head still attached to my shoulders, I was hooked. I rode Space Mountain five times that day.

Whenever I think about crafting suspense in a novel, this memory is what I turn to, because what is suspense if not a reckless flight through unknown territory that leaves you white-knuckled, gasping, and ready for more?

Putting That Thrill into Your Story

Too often, I think, good stories are killed stone dead by a terminal lack of suspense. If the reader can guess at the ending before it’s done, why would they bother sticking around long enough to turn all the pages to get there? Particularly in the thriller genre, where I have found my happy home, suspense should gird every scene like a tiny imp perched on the reader’s shoulder that whispers, “But what happens next?”

Here are three questions I ask myself whenever I’m crafting a scene:

  • What does the reader expect to happen next?
  • How can I make my protagonist’s day worse?
  • What’s at stake in this scene? How can I threaten it?

Regardless of genre, unpredictability as a storyteller will keep your reader hooked. If you’re at a crossroads when writing a scene, make a list of possible outcomes and then cross off the first three that come to mind. Suspense comes from unfamiliarity, and if you’re telling a story that’s been told before, the familiarity will sure as heck breed contempt in your reader. Guaranteed.

Make a Mess

To look at it a different way, imagine your plot as two points on a graph. A straight line that goes directly from A to Z isn’t going to keep anyone up past two in the morning even though they have to be at work in the morning. Throw some false starts in there, some lines that lead to nowhere, some hints at what might be coming, some backward progress, and maybe even an explosion or two, and that graph suddenly looks like a mess.

But it’s a readable mess. It’s a compelling mess. It’s a mess that’ll keep your readers on their toes until the very end, when they read the last word, close the book, and then shake their heads, saying, “I just, I can’t even,” whenever someone asks them about your book.

Don’t Hold Back the Torture

Another way to harness the power of suspense is to torture your protagonist. Take your protagonist’s bad day and make it worse. If your protagonist just got fired, have him get a flat tire on the way home and then catch pneumonia in the rain. If your protagonist is running for her life from a five-headed monkey demon, have her break a heel and finish her run barefoot along a rubble-strewn sidewalk. If your protagonist’s mom just died, have him come home to find his wife running a meth lab in the basement.

You get the point. Suspense can come from the reader simply having no idea how the hero is getting out of this. When I was writing the ending of Bai Tide, I literally had nightmares about the ending because I absolutely positively had no freaking idea how my hero was going to escape. If you can make yourself half-mad with worry over your character, chances are excellent your readers are going to feel the same way.

Set the Stakes High—Way High

And finally, be aware of the stakes in each scene. Figure out what the stakes are in each scene and then make them higher. Maybe even destroy them. If the survival of the human race is dependent on information contained in a micro SD card, have the hero trip and drop it down a gutter. If getting captured during a jewel heist is the absolute worst thing that could happen to your hero, then that’s exactly what you should do.

However, I would add a Joss Whedon quote in here to balance out the doom and gloom: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” Give your readers places to pause and collect their wits every once in a while. And then get right back to turning those screws.

True suspense means nothing is taken for granted, and I think this transcends genre. Look at the success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. He’s notorious at this point for fearlessly killing his main characters. He has said in the past, “It’s really irritating when you open a book, and ten pages into it you know that the hero you met on page one or two is gonna come through unscathed because he’s the hero. This is completely unreal, and I don’t like it.”

The happy ending should look darn near impossible at certain points, the hero’s survival should not be a given, and the world might just end up exploding at the end. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, if you don’t tantalize your reader with the very real possibility that the worst may come to pass, probably will come to pass because the stakes are just that high, they won’t care enough to find out for themselves.

If you learn nothing else from this post, learn this: Suspense is a plunge into the dark, with twists and turns you can’t see coming and therefore can’t prepare for. If you can do this for your readers and transport them so fully to another world that they forget they live in this one for a second, believe me, they will thank you.

How do you generate suspense in your writing? Any novels you want to recommend that show great techniques in ramping up suspense?

Erika Mitchell HeadshotErika Mitchell is the author of Blood Money and Bai Tide, the first novel of a new series about CIA case officer Bai Hsu (Champagne Books, 2015). Erika cut her espionage teeth on James Bond marathons with her father at a formative age and has never looked back. She lives in the Seattle, WA, area with her husband and their two tiny spies-in-training and welcomes new online friends at her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

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  1. I was going to Say that a friend of mine at Space Mountain…

    But then you swerved away from Space Mountain.

    So I looked ahead at something I could concentrate on in this response. Thank you, you never gave a response. You just jogged on ahead, jerking one way and another. How in the world am I going to learn anything if you keep me in suspense like this?

    Getting back to my friend in the Space Mountain car….

  2. Hi Erika and thanks for hosting this great piece, Susanne.

    Your analogy to the suspense of Space Mountain is bang-on. Love that ride! A suspenseful book that comes to mind is ‘Hunt For Red October’ by Tom Clancy from around 30 years ago. It was the first book I read that used a short, choppy chapter style, with location, time & date headings. Very effective. It had extremely high stakes with plot changing twists and an ending that I didn’t see coming.

    I’d like to hear other views on the use of chapter headings to introduce and set the suspense of the scene.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      I love Tom Clancy, I devoured all his books in high school. His stories all had that excellent patina of verisimilitude that made you feel like YOU had Special Ops experience just because you read them.

  3. Great thoughts in this post! I agree with everything you say.

    I’d like to raise one red flag, though: please beware of cookie cutter plots. So many novels(whatever genre)follow such a standard formula a person could write one in her sleep. Or is this unavoidable? (Sounds like George Martin has managed.)

    I haven’t read many thrillers, but lately I’ve read a number of cozy mysteries, esp. romance-type, and for either genre the formula is:
    Some kind of disaster/crime/problem
    FMC meets MMC — and detests the man.
    Great chance for adjectives here: arrogant, chauvinist, snobby, egotist, etc. But ruggedly handsome. Smooth is OUT–must be conceitedly, ruggedly hunky. Preferably a cop, spy, or rancher.)

    MMC detests her, too. Every meeting irritates him more. (If he’s a rancher or sheriff, she’s distracting him from his work and/or challenging his authority. If he’s a cop, she’s meddling in his crime scene. FMC must be something of a drop-dead gorgeous feisty distraction.)

    They spit nails at each other for the first few chapters, yet (sometimes every other page!) they admit to an attraction. Then woe befalls hero. Shot by outlaws, etc. Heroine must rescue him and/or nurse him back to health. Or something happens to her. She falls in the river and he fishes her out. Etc.

    The adjectives fade away, they discover inner beauty of some kind. Lust intensifies. But another woe befalls. He/she is captured by Apaches, the Mob, outlaws, or is falsely accused of a crime. Or is caught in a natural disaster.

    One rescues the other again and they admit their love/lust for each other. Depending on target readers they end up engaged and/or land up in bed, with promise of a future together.

    I’ve done some research amongst happily married people and find that in real life, most people who meet their special someone LIKE that person right off the bat. IMO having them spitting nails at each other to create tension is so cheap-phony. Am I an oddball?

    1. No, you are definitely not an oddball! At least, not in my opinion. This is why I’m not a fan of romance or romantic suspense. It is predictable. As a reviewer, I have read many and most are so predictable, I empathize with the agents and editors. I find the same with much of the paranormal. In my WIP, there are ghosts, but I hesitate to call it paranormal because the first thing one assumes is that it is vampires, werewolves or angels. They are done to death and also predictable. So, how do you put a fresh spin on it? That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? 🙂

      1. I think putting a fresh spin on something has to be one of the more formidable tasks a genre writer can face. My two cents, for what they’re worth, is to focus on interesting characters. Characters who don’t feel like characters because they’re so compelling and rich on the page. If you can write a book that makes the reader feel like they’re following real people and not just plot devices moving around like chess pieces, even an old story will seem fresh.

    2. No, you’re definitely not an oddball! I have a hard time with rom-coms for precisely this reason. I get bored out of my mind when I can see the ending coming a thousand miles away. Give me peril! Give me life and death stakes! And for the love of cake, give me protagonists who actually like each other!!!

      1. Oh, thank you…I feel “normal after all” now. And I definitely agree with you about the importance of living, breathing protagonists.
        I’m looking forward to checking out your books — though I may hold my breath and skip lightly over the terrorizing life-and-death scenes. I get nightmares so easily. 🙂

        1. I get nightmares easily too! I’d say that’s the most difficult thing about writing thrillers: the research material. The things I fill my head with to write books are definite nightmare material.

          If you do pick up Bai Tide, don’t worry. It’s not gory or unnecessarily violent. I try to shy away from gore for its own sake 🙂

          1. I could tell you a story that would give you night-mares. There was a horrific murder among my own kin that doesn’t need much fiction embellishment — especially as children were involved. (Thankfully they survived.)

            Details I heard raised serious questions and I wondered for a good while whether the killer actually was caught or if blame was laid on another because of racial issues and the real killer was still free. Thankfully I later learned I was wrong.

            (If you’re interested in details, e-mail me at christinevanceg at gmail (dot)com and I could send you a link. I can’t write about this; the family would all recognize who I’m referring to.)

  4. Thanks for the great post, Erika. I love that quote from Joss Whedon. He really does a great job balancing suspense and humor, which is hard to do. I’m always telling editing clients they need to make things as awful as possible for their characters, and one way to do that is to give them two choices, both of them awful.

  5. Though I would not label my novel-in-work a thriller, this posting generated some valuable ideas to make it more riveting. Wow! Thanks. The best suspense/thriller novels I’ve read and sometimes re-read have contained the criteria outlined here. Protagonists and Antagonists with ongoing dilemmas promote suspense.

    1. I’m so glad this was helpful for you! I think reading in your own genre is super helpful, you can take notes in the back of your mind about what works and what doesn’t.

      Good luck with your work in progress!

  6. Space Mountain frightened me when I went on it years ago. I’m not really th roller coaster type, although my husband and children love them. My husband and I both love Tom Clancy and his writing style. I understand what you’re saying about cookie cutter plots, although some genres remain strong–and interesting–with them. I’m a cozy fan! Thanks so much for sharing this with your readers, Erika.

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